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27 November 2014
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Summer in the Sixties
The Five Senses: Taste - 1969 by Joe Tilson. Courtesy of the Tate

Summer in the Sixties

Snapshot of the era - Art

The Sixties were an era of memorable events, fads and fashions. To jog your memory, we have highlights for art, social/political moments, sport, music, TV, films, style and toys along with information about related programming in the BBC FOUR season.


First, Art...

Art programmes in the BBC FOUR season:

Art and the 60s

Time shift: Art School


London in the Sixties is best remembered for Pop Art. The 1956 This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery prefigured Pop Art with its preoccupation with American culture and consumerism, and its use of collage.

By 1961, a group of artists coming out of the Royal College of Art including David Hockney, RB Kitaj, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones, Derek Boshier and Patrick Caulfield had put Pop Art on the map.

The Pop artists shot to fame and fashionability very swiftly, and were much celebrated in the press.

In 1966, Time Magazine published its London: the Swinging City issue.

By 1968, for the first time in the twentieth century, London had become the focus for the international art world.

But the reason London became a focus was not just due to Pop Art. The Sixties art scene here was actually very diverse and made up of co-existing and competing art movements.

Alongside Pop, there was also a new interest in Abstraction. This was largely the result of the influence of US abstraction (eg Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Noland, Newman).

Painter Richard Smith - a huge star in the Sixties - merged Abstract Expressionist gestural marks with the commercial subject matter of Pop Art.

Other successful abstract painters at that time included Bridget Riley, Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, Gillian Ayres and Paul Huxley.

Sixties British Sculpture was also looking radically new. Anthony Caro was the trailblazer. His interest in colour and abstraction was the result of a trip to the States and an encounter with Clement Greenberg.

Out went the Henry Moore-type figurative bronzes on plinths, and in came brightly coloured, abstract shapes sitting on the floor, made out of sheet metal and plastic.

Caro influenced a whole generation of sculptors at St Martin's School of Art - notably enfant terrible Phillip King - now President of the Royal Academy!

Within St Martin's, another group reacted strongly against Caro and King. These were the Conceptualists and Performance Artists, who were against the fabrication of objects and the preoccupation with form.

From the early Sixties, artists such as Gustav Metzger (Auto-Destructive Art), Stuart Brisley, Richard Long and John Latham saw themselves in angry opposition to the Abstract artists. They were much more interested in content and ideas.

Real enmities developed, and private views often witnessed extremely heated arguments.

Latham famously ate (literally) art critic Greenberg's book Art and Culture. The copy he ate came from the St Martin's library - and he was promptly sacked!

The most infamous of this group of performance artists were the duo Gilbert and George, who began their careers as 'living sculptures' at St Martins by serving up baked beans in ice cream cones to their fellow students as a form of Conceptual Sculpture.

They would go on to create and film a number of iconic performances including Gordon's Makes Us Drunk, where the pair simply drink Gordon's Gin until they are intoxicated, and Underneath the Arches, where they perform a simple, recurring set of actions whilst miming to a looped version of the old Flanagan and Allen classic.

By the end of the Sixties, fashions had changed and the moment was over.

The incredible success of Pop and Abstraction had passed very rapidly.

The early Seventies saw the rise of Conceptual and Performance Art and the dematerialization of the art object.

But the Sixties will always be remembered as the decade that blew the idea of just what art could be wide-open, allowing new ideas on form, concept and the role and purpose of the artist to flourish.

It was also the decade during which cross-pollination between artistic fields was most fertile - whether in terms of painter Kenneth Noland's colourful influence on Abstract Sculpture or the influence of painters such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake on record sleeve art.

In this way, the Sixties art scene in London was the seedbed of innumerable creative trends, and was one of the most exciting and varied hotbeds of talent that the art world has ever seen.

Vanessa Engle, producer Art and the 60s

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